Like his 2018 feature debut, Midsommar is a movie best experienced as unspoiled as possible, so we didn’t get into any plot specifics in our recent interview with Aster. But there was still plenty to discuss.
Anyone who hasn’t seen the movie yet can ascertain from the trailer that it’s about a group of young Americans who encounter unexpected horrors while attending a festival in rural Sweden. But at the screening I attended, which featured a post-film Q&A, and in other interviews for the film, you’ve described it as “a break-up movie”. Why was it important for you to frame the film that way for audiences?
Ari Aster: I don’t know if it’s so important for me to establish that in press, or to give viewers that foundation before they walk into the film. But rather, it is what the movie is for me, and so I assume people would be able to pick up on that without my prompting them.
If anything, press forces you to categorise your own film, if only because questions often push you into that corner. But the way I’ve always seen this film is as a break-up movie. It’s the only way I really know how to talk about it.
It’s obviously a contribution to the folk horror subgenre; I see it primarily as a fairy tale — again, if we’re fitting the movie into a box. And I think this and Hereditary both easily fit into certain boxes, almost self-consciously so. That’s sort of my non-answer. [Laughs.]
Ari Aster’s latest film, Midsommar, is as carefully constructed as his 2018 breakout, Hereditary. There are some shared themes, like families, grief, and cults; the main character is, again, a woman pushed to the edge. And it manages to be just as unsettling, despite the fact that it takes place almost entirely under brilliantly sunny skies.
Is Midsommar more personal for you than Hereditary?
Aster: I would not call it more personal, no. It is personal, but I see them both as personal. I feel like Hereditary was, in some ways, pressingly personal. And this one, while I was writing it, was an exorcism of sorts.
I was writing it on the side years ago, and so the making of the film was maybe less of a purge than the making of Hereditary — although once the director’s hat goes on, the technical side takes over, and you get kind of lost in the minutiae, it’s almost like, for a while, you lose that personal attachment.
The aesthetics almost become more personal to you than the theme, and later on, after the movie’s been out for a while, you can kind of reattach to it on a personal level.
That’s sort of what I experienced with Hereditary; I feel closer to Hereditary now than I did when we released it, and I can see a little bit more clearly what the movie is.
Right now, my nose is right up against Midsommar. I just finished it, and already people’s opinions are sort of raining down, and it’s very disorientating. [Laughs.] That’s a long-winded way of saying, yes, it’s very personal, but not more personal than Hereditary.
Both of your movies are filled with disturbing imagery, and it feels as though that’s something audiences are going to expect from you going forward. Does that put extra pressure on you trying to shock people? Do you enjoy shocking audiences?
Aster: As a viewer, I enjoy being surprised, and I’m drawn to the grotesque. Although, whatever people’s expectations are — I guess I have a vague idea as to what they are, and if anything I’m already putting a lot of energy into ignoring them and trying to put them out of my head.
Because whatever I’m doing, I want to what’s best for that movie, not what’s best for the expectations that people are bringing into a film. If anything, I’d love to cultivate the image of somebody who is not going to appease expectations. But it’s all very self-conscious, and I’d love to just go movie by movie and try to divorce myself as much from the last one as possible.
Not that [Midsommar] is totally divorced from Hereditary. I’ve written many, many screenplays, and lots of them have nothing to do with the others. But I wrote this one right after I wrote Hereditary, and it didn’t quite occur to me until we were on set, and especially while we were cutting the film, that the films share a lot of thematic concerns, and that they have a lot in common.
But, yeah, I hope to just go movie by movie and do my best at sort of separating myself from whatever people’s preconceived expectations might be.
One big similarity the two films share is that they both feature powerful performances from female leads — Toni Collette in Hereditary, and now Florence Pugh in Midsommar. Why did you decide to tell these stories from a woman’s point of view, and how did you guide Florence Pugh into accessing those raw emotions we see from her in the film?
Aster: It wasn’t strategic, putting the movie in a woman’s point of view, or kind of hinging the movie on a woman — that just felt right. There was no “eureka” moment of, “Oh, it must be a woman!” It always felt right for the story, and it had been that way from the beginning.
And Florence Pugh is a really remarkable actress, Toni Collette is a remarkable actress. I’ve really just been lucky, in that I’ve been able to work with these incredible actors that are so capable of bringing these people to life.
I feel like my job as a director of actors is either done, or not done, in the writing, and you kind of find out on set whether the writing is doing its job. Typically, when you’re working with a great actor and you have to come in and help steer things, and kind of take things off the wrong track, it’s because you kind of inadvertently put them on the wrong track by maybe misstepping in the writing phase.
But for the most part, the requirements of the story are kind of laid out in the script, as clearly as I can put them there, and then I’ve just been able to talk through the movie with the actors and make sure that we’re on the same page and that we’re making the same movie.
And then, beyond the fact that I am a little dictatorial with my blocking and with the choreography, and how the actors are moving in relation to the camera — beyond that, I see my job on set as being one of kind of sitting back and allowing the actors to take charge of these characters, and I can just kind of be a fan, if I’ve done my job in casting correctly.
Again, luckily, I’ve been working with great actors, and so — it’s all them.
When Hereditary came out in the US, you did an interview with our Evan Narcisse where you talked about how doing the research for that movie was “upsetting”. Were you similarly disturbed while doing what I assume was also a lot of research ahead of writing Midsommar?
Aster: No, the research for Midsommar was not disturbing. The research for Hereditary was disturbing because I was looking up witchcraft, and the more you look into that, the more you realise there are people who believe in it, and a lot of it is very malignant.
There is benevolent witchcraft, which is one thing, but it’s all kind of in line with manipulating people around you to sort of meet your will. So that’s troubling.
[For Midsommar], most of my research went into folklore and Swedish traditions — which are typically pretty harmless, as long as you’re not looking into certain corners of their history — and a lot of different spiritual movements.
For me, it was important that Hårga [the village setting] be a beautiful place, as well as a troubling place. So most of my research went into kind of building a foundation for this place that wasn’t cynical or built on atrocities, but rather the kind of thing that lures somebody into a world and indoctrinates them, and disarms people.
So the research I did for this film was very, very different from the research I did for Hereditary. There were definitely disturbing corners that I had to look into, but it was all fun in this case.
Midsommar is out in Australia on August 8.